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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Barking at the Sun

We have to shout and shriek to keep ourselves sane. Upper caste women keep it all suppressed, they can neither chew nor swallow.Bama’s ...

Written by Ritu Menon |
January 23, 2005

We have to shout and shriek to keep ourselves sane. Upper caste women keep it all suppressed, they can neither chew nor swallow.

Bama’s Sangati is that most unusual of creative endeavours, a literary outpouring without guile or artifice that nevertheless wrenches your guts and leaves you quivering. With rage. With despair. With fierce hope — because a writer and survivor like Bama has taken up her pen to write dalit women’s destiny.

Bama herself doesn’t shout or shriek, but her quiet, matter of fact narration of the violence that circumscribes the lives of the women on her street is all the more shocking for it. “I can’t even begin to enter the experiences of the women in Sangati,” she has said, women she grew up seeing battered, bruised and broken by their own men, upper caste men, panchayat men, landlords, sons of landlords — the whole damn breed.

She’s a little girl, listening to her grandmother explaining the world to her. Paatti comes alive as one of the most memorable figures in recent Indian literature, animating the events in her granddaughter’s narrative with her wisdom and careless disregard for logic. She’s a survivor, too, who picks up the broken fragments of her life and makes a mosaic for her grandchildren to decipher. Bama presents these fragments to us as vignettes that dismantle all our comfortable assumptions about Hindu society, exposing the brutality of its very structure. Its deceits and discrimination, and its relentless grinding down of the ultimate underdog, the dalit woman.

So deep-seated are its prejudices that they permeate dalit practice too. Menstrual and other taboos regarding untouchability are reit-erated in inter-dalit proscriptions. Couples who cross low-caste boundaries are mercilessly hounded; women are subjected to the same humiliating degradation.

I have seldom read an account so shot through with violence, and yet it sparkles. Paatti breaks into joyous song whenever she tires of straightforward telling. Her age and status in the village — widowed midwife of extraordinary skill — allow her a fearless freedom that she manages to communicate to her granddaughter.

I suspect she’s also managed to convey the art of storytelling to her. In a way many of the events in Sangati are a retelling of Paatti’s stories to Bama. Mariamma, the motherless cousin who goes straight from drunken father to rapist husband; Esakki, the woman possessed; Raakhamma almost beaten to death — the young girl watches all this but it is Paatti who unravels it for her.

Much later Bama does her own unravelling, of form and language, of literary expectations. Dalit dialect, abuse, argumentation, turns of phrase like “the fart that comes before shit” thumb their nose at decorum and propriety, and break the distinction between what’s spoken and written.

“I never wanted to create great literature,” she says. “When literary circles called the language vulgar and obscene, I was all the more convinced that it was my language, our language.” In the same way, her narrative moves easily between recounting and reflecting, storytelling and documenting, biography and politics.

And so Bama’s significant contribution is that, through the act of writing, she not only transgresses caste boundaries, she also demolishes the conventional exclusions of language and genre. And of course, gender. In Sangati all three are full-blown.

It is common to commend the translator, and Lakshmi Holmstrom must be congratulated for a fine job. But Bama’s other literary editor, Mini Krishnan, surely deserves our appreciation for having first made her writing available to an English-reading audience.

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